Has the Third Intifada Begun?

When the lulls between terror attacks are barely noticeable, we may have to recognize a new reality.


“The third intifada” was the headline emblazoned on the front page of Yedioth Ahronoth, the tabloid of middle Israel, on Sunday morning. Newspapers, of course, have to sell papers and a headline doesn’t necessarily define or create reality. But it matters if Israelis, and Palestinians, call the latest round of killings in Jerusalem and the West Bank an intifada.

The extent of current violence doesn’t come close to that which took place in 1987 and 2000, when the previous two intifadas broke out. But regardless of whether that happens over coming days, intifadas aren’t just about mayhem engulfing the occupied territories — they’re also about a shift in the ground rules governing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Intifada” has come to mean a Palestinian uprising; literally, it means a shaking-off — kind of what a wet dog does. 

The first intifada drove home the realization that, after the first two decades of occupation, the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank weren’t going to accept gradual annexation. The second intifada was an attempt by the Palestinians to change the political reality through violence.

Both were very different. The year 1987 and subsequent years saw a popular uprising of stone- and firebomb-throwing, with the various armed organizations playing catch-up to the situation on the ground in the later stages. In the second intifada (2000-2005), it was the armed groups who were in charge nearly from the start with live fire and bombs on buses and in coffee shops.

The third intifada need not follow either pattern, but it would have to engender a fundamental change all the same.

None of the developments of the past few weeks are particularly unique. Even the most violent events – the stoning of a vehicle in East Jerusalem that caused the death of driver Alexander Levlovich during Rosh Hashanah; the death in Hebron two weeks ago of Hadeel al-Hashlamoun, whom the Israel Defense Forces claim was trying to stab a soldier; the drive-by shooting that murdered Naama and Eitam Henkin in the West Bank last Thursday; and Saturday night’s stabbing attack in the Old City of Jerusalem that killed two men — these all conform to what the security establishment has long been calling “individual terror” or “popular terror” attacks. Along with the general rise in violent confrontations, they could have all taken place at any point in recent years.

With the destruction of most of Hamas’ military hierarchies and other armed organizations in the West Bank at the end of the second intifada, and the formalization of security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, each spike in violence has been characterized by these “individuals” who are usually acting on their own volition, without a terror cell backing them up. But when the spikes come fast and furious, and so close to each other that the lulls in-between are barely noticeable, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that the shift has already happened and maybe the third intifada has already been going on for a year or so?

Another characteristic of the next (or current) intifada could certainly be the increasing prevalence of Jewish “price tag” operations, such as the arson attack that murdered three members of the Dawabsheh family in the West Bank village of Duma about two months ago.

The defining event of a possible third intifada should have been the end of the Palestinian Authority, a breakdown of the security coordination and the IDF being forced to go back into the West Bank cities. This would have happened in one of three ways: either Israel would have acted in a way that finally robbed the PA of all semblance of control over the limited area of the West Bank where it held sway; a popular uprising first swept away the Palestinian police before refocusing on the Israeli occupiers; or a frustrated President Mahmoud Abbas would, of his own accord, announce the end of the PA.

But as his “bombshell” speech at the United Nations General Assembly last week seemed to make clear, Abbas isn’t quite ready to relinquish power. And, despite the war of words with the Netanyahu government and accusations of “incitement” at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, he doesn’t want the current arrangement to come to an end. But the spate of attacks indicate that there’s no need for a conscious decision on either side, or for thousands of demonstrators to camp out in Ramallah’s Al-Manara Square, for the PA’s authority to erode to irrelevance.

We may have an answer very soon. Hopefully it will take just a few days of relative calm and we will once again be laying to rest the premature announcement of the third intifada. Or perhaps it will take just one more death, on either side, for all hell to break loose in a cycle of vicious retribution — and then we’ll have to admit it’s been going on for a long time already and we were simply in denial. But it’s still too early to say.